Thursday, August 30, 2007

Slowing down: 17 minutes for privacy

In the era of the soundbite and the tabloid headline, it's almost startling to be invited to talk on radio about privacy at Google for 17 minutes. I don't normally believe in cross-posting media stuff into this blog, but it's not everyday that you get a chance to talk about things slowly, in depth. The audio link is here:

All this is in connection with the Ars Electronica Privacy Symposium in Linz, Austria.

IP Geolocation: knowing where users are – very roughly

A lot of Internet services take IP-based geolocation into account. In other words, they look at a user's IP address to try to guess the user's location, in order to provide a more relevant service. In privacy terms, it's important to understand the extent to which a person's location is captured by these services. Below are some insights into how precise these are (or rather, are not), how it's done, and how they're used in some Google services.

The IP geolocation system Google uses (similar to the approach used by most web sites) is based primarily on third-party data, from an IP-to-geo index. These systems are reasonably accurate for classifying countries, particularly large ones and in areas far from borders, but weaker at city-level and regional-level classification. As measured by one truth set, these systems are off by about 21 miles for the typical U.S. user (median), and 20% of the time don't know where the user is located within less than 250 miles. The imprecision of geolocation is one of the reasons that it is a flawed model to use for legal compliance purposes. Take, for example, a YouTube video with political discourse that is deemed to be “illegal” content in one country, but completely legal in others. Any IP-based filtering for the country that considers this content illegal will always be over- or under-inclusive, given the imprecision of geolocation.

IP address-based geolocation is used at Google in a variety of applications to guess the approximate location of the user. Here are examples of the use of IP geolocation at Google:

Ads quality: Restrict local-targeted campaigns to relevant users
Google Analytics: Website owners slice usage reports by geography
Google Trends: Identifying top and rising queries within specific regions
Adspam team: Distribution of clicks by city is an offline click spam signal
Adwords Frontend: Geo reports feature in Report Center

So, an IP-to-geo index is a function from an IP address to a guessed location. The guessed location for a given IP address can be as precise as a city or as vague as just a country, or there can be no guess at all if no IP range in the index contains the address. There are many efforts underway to improve the accuracy of these systems. But for now, IP-based geolocation is significantly less precise than zip codes, to take an analogy from the physical world.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Do you read privacy policies, c'mon, really?

What’s the best way to communicate information about privacy to consumers? Virtually all companies do this in writing, via privacy policies. But many are not easy to read, because they are trying to do two (sometimes contradictory) things, namely, provide consumers with information in a comprehensible format, while meeting legal obligations for full privacy disclosure. So, should privacy policies be short (universally preferred by consumers) or long (universally preferred by lawyers worried about regulatory obligations)? Perhaps a combination of the two is the best compromise: a short summary on top of a long complete privacy policy, the so-called “layered” approach. This is the approach recommended in a thoughtful study by the Center for Information Policy Leadership:

But then I’m reminded of what Woody Allen said: “I took a speed reading course and read ‘War and Peace’ in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.” Yes, privacy summaries can be too short to be meaningful.

Indeed, maybe written policies aren’t the best format for communicating with consumers, regardless of whether they’re long or short. Maybe consumers prefer watching videos. Intellectually, privacy professionals might want consumers to read privacy policies, but in practice, most consumers don’t. We should face that reality. So, I think we have an obligation to be creative, to explore other media for communicating with consumers about privacy. That’s why Google is exploring video formats. We’ve just gotten started, and so far, we’ve only launched one. We’re working on more. Take a look and let me know what you think. Remember, we’re trying to communicate with “average” consumers, so don’t expect a detailed tech tutorial.

Personally, I’ve also been trying to talk about privacy through other video formats, with the media. Below is just one example. I don’t know if all these videos are the right approach, but I do think it’s right to be experimenting.

Did you read the book, or watch the movie?

Monday, August 27, 2007

Data Protection Officers according to German law

Some of you might be interested in German law on data protection officers. I’m going to give this to you in factual terms. [This isn’t legal advice, and it’s not commentary: so, I’m not commenting on how much or little sense I think this makes in practice.]

Since August 2006, according to the German Data Protection Act, the appointment of an Data Protection Officer (“DPO”) is compulsory for any company or organization employing more than nine employees in its automated personal data processing operations.

Anyone appointed as DPO must have the required technical and technical-legal knowledge and reliability (Fachkunde und Zuverlässigkeit). He or she need not be an employee, but can also be an outside expert (i.e., the work of the official can be outsourced). Either way, the official reports directly to the CEO (Leiter) of the company; must be allowed to carry out his or her function free of interference (weisungsfrei); may not be penalized for his or her actions; and can only be fired in exceptional circumstances, subject to special safeguards (but note that this includes being removed as DPO at the suggestion of the relevant DPA). The company is furthermore required by law to provide the official with adequate facilities in terms of office space, personnel, etc.

The main task of the DPO is to ensure compliance with the law and any other data protection-relevant legal provisions in all the personal data processing operations of his employer or principal. To this end, the company must provide the DPO with an overview of its processing operations that must include the information which (if it were not for the fact that the company has appointed a DPO) would have had to be notified to the authorities as well as a list of persons who are granted access to the various processing facilities. In practice, it is often the first task of the DPO to compile a register of this information, and suggest appropriate amendments (e.g., clearer definitions of the purpose(s) of specific operations, or stricter rules on who has access to which data). Once a DPO has been appointed, new planned automated processing operations must be reported to him or her before they are put into effect.

The DPO’s tasks also include verifying the computer programs used; and training the staff working with personal data. More generally, he has to advise the company on relevant operations, and to suggest changes where necessary. This is a delicate matter, especially if the legal requirements are open to different interpretations. The Act therefore adds that the official may, “in cases of doubt” contact the relevant DPA. However, except in the special context of a “prior check” issues, the Act does not make this obligatory.

It is important to note that the DPO in Germany is not just a cosmetic function, and it is important for the company and DPO to take his role seriously. Thus, the DPO must be given sufficient training and resources to do his job properly. Failure to take the DPO function seriously can have serious legal consequences, both for the company and the DPO.

When appointing a DPO, it is important to identify potential incompatibility and conflict of interests between this position and other positions of the person within the company. Non-compliance with the law is subject to an administrative offense which can be punished by a fine of up to € 25,000. Moreover, the DPA can order the dismissal of the DPO if he or she also holds a position which is incompatible with the role as DPO. Finally, non-compliance may give rise to liability under the Act.

Unfortunately, with regard to conflicts of interest there is no clear picture, and much depends on local requirements and views by local DPAs. In general, the following positions are considered to be incompatible with the position of a DPO:

CEO, Director, Corporate Administrators, or other managerial positions that are legally or statutory compulsory
Head of IT/ IT Administrator
Head of HR
Head of Marketing
Head of Sales
Head of Legal
Executives of corporate units processing massive or sensitive personal data

Employees in the administrative department and employees in the legal department are more likely considered to have no conflicts of interest. Finally, views differ considerably with regard to the position of an internal auditor and the head of corporate security. An IT security manager can be appointed if he is independent in the organization of the department.

Finally, German law does not provide for having a “Group DPO” that oversees a group of companies or a holding (Konzerndatenschutzbeauftragter). Such a DPO needs to be appointed by every single entity and also has to implement local data protection coordinators.